California voters in November will decide whether they want their Golden State split into three. So what would happen if they approve the three-Californias ballot measure?

State Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor and Finance Director Michael Cohen laid out the process in an October report to the Attorney General.

Once approved, the measure would require the governor to notify Congress on January 1, 2019, and request a vote on the proposed California split within 12 months of that date.

Congressional approval, however, is no easy ask. Congress admitted four U.S. states that were split from an existing state: Kentucky, Maine, Vermont, and lastly West Virginia in 1863 during the Civil War.

Shortly before the Civil War, the California Legislature in 1859 asked Congress to approve a split that would have created a southern California state or territory, including Los Angeles and San Diego. But Congress, riven by divisions that sparked the Civil War, never acted on the request.

Expect similar congressional push-back in today’s politically divided Capitol. Creating two more Californias would add four more California members to the U.S. Senate, something those who already think California wields outsize influence would loathe. It also would leapfrog statehood dreams in Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories.

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Should Congress go along, the measure also would require the state Legislature to divide and transform the existing state into the three new states. If the Legislature fails to do so within 12 months of congressional approval to divide the state, the measure would divide California’s debts among the three new states based on their populations.

Existing state assets like universities and prisons within the boundaries of each of the new states would then become assets of that new state. Each of the three new states would have to adopt a new constitution by convention or popular vote.

Dividing up the existing state’s infrastructure and bureaucracy would be a spirited legislative debate. The state report notes that California’s water system is “one of the most complex in the world” because water “does not naturally appear in California where demand is highest.” The new California state along the coast from the counties of Monterey to Los Angeles would be a net importer of water from the proposed Northern California and Southern California.

Assuming state lawmakers hash all this out, you still have the inevitable lawsuit. The state analysis notes that it’s been a long time since this issue last came up, and there are some uncertainties in the law.

How long would it take to resolve all this? Be patient. After West Virginia split from Virginia in 1863, court cases related to the states’ debts persisted for about 50 years, the state analysis said.

“While this measure anticipates action to divide California’s debts and secure congressional approval within two years after voter approval, it would be difficult for this timeline to be put into practice,” the state report concluded. “Some of the legal and practical issues of splitting up California suggest there is a high likelihood that the process would take many years to complete.”


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